As the travel industry grows increasingly complex, and travelers have more diverse wants and needs, sharpening your qualifying discussions will increase your close rates and help you better match your clients with the right vacations.
“Over the last few years, people have been getting back to a consultative type mentality,” said Marat Shkandin, senior trainer at Tzell Travel, “where you are selling from the client’s needs, and root yourself in the client’s mindset.”
While qualifying questions are key to uncovering those wants and needs, how you prepare your client for the discussion, and how well you elicit and listen to their answers, is even more important, Shkandin said.
Shkandin has been working in the travel industry for more than two decades. He developed and leads the company’s 10-week Travel Agent Bootcamp training for new advisors who become independent affiliates of Tzell Travel, and manages educational programs for existing advisors as well.
Shkandin began his career as a retail agent at Liberty Travel, where he was eventually promoted to managing three Manhattan locations. During his tenure, each location reached President’s Club status for sales production and customer service, and he was selected to develop mandatory sales and customer service training for all new advisors to the company, and later leadership training for store managers.
To hone their qualifying skills, Shkandin recommends agents take public speaking classes, or join a local Toastmasters group. “Anywhere where you are interacting with people regularly, even just going to your local pub and talking to people you don’t know, will make you a more natural conversationalist,” he said.
Here, he offers five important tips for better qualifying discussions.
1. Start off on the right foot.
What many advisors don’t realize is that the quality of your qualifying conversations starts way before your first question. Shkandin recommends advisors put their clients in a mindset that prepares them for probing questions.
“Set it up, saying to your client, ‘To better understand what you are looking for, I want to ask you a series of questions,’” he said. “This way, you have already established the process, and you’ve received their permission. That will help put your client at ease.”
2. Do your questions drill down deep enough?
“This is very important, especially when you are a generalist. You really need to understand what the client is looking for, what kind of experiences they are looking for,” Shkandin said, “and that can be more difficult if you don’t have a niche.”
For example, he said, someone who says they want to visit Italy could be looking for a wide variety of experiences. “Are they looking to eat their way through Tuscany? Are they adventurers, and might be interested in some hiking? How much quiet time do they want? This will impact the itinerary, the accommodations you recommend,” he said.
If a couple says they are looking to reconnect, don’t assume that means candlelit dinners by a beach. Think of questions that go deeper, said Shkandin. “What makes them connect at home? It may be sports, or art.”
3. Don’t assume the client knows what they want.
“Even if they think they know what they are looking for, you cannot take your client at their word,” Shkandin said. “There are clients out there who are playing poker and holding their wants and needs close to their chest. They will only reveal what they are looking for if you ask questions that engage them to tell you what’s important to them.”
Unfortunately, Shkandin said, there are no magic questions that are foolproof ways to elicit those answers. Different clients respond to different questions, posed in different ways, and in different sequences.
The key, Shkandin said, is to start at a level that allows you to start narrowing down the basics, like countries, regions, landscapes. Then ask about specific experiences in those places that will make them happy, and validate their answers with them.
4. How you speak is almost as important as what you say.
“You’re asking questions,” Shkandin said, “like you’re having a conversation. This shouldn’t be an episode of [the television drama] SVU (Special Victim’s Unit).
“What happens, especially with agents who are newer to the travel industry and sales, is they get intimidated by the process. They hear the word ‘sales,’ and all of a sudden this has to be a high-pressure environment,” said Shkandin. “Bang out the questions, get through the process. You don’t want to be that person.”
Not only does that demonstrate your unease with the process, it will make your client uneasy too, he said.
5. Listen more than you speak.
“I’d estimate that 50% of the people in our industry have listening skills they need to work on,” Shkandin said. “Most of us, in our personal conversations, are thinking about what we are going to say next, instead of paying attention to what the other person is saying.”
For experienced advisors, “they feel they know what the client’s answer is going to be. “They are so good at qualifying; they start not listening to the answer. When you do that, you may know only 80% of the right answers, and miss something important in the other 20% because you determined you already knew what to book for them,” said Shkandin.
Sometimes, the best information you will get from a client will come from a thoughtful follow-up question that clarifies an answer the client has already given you. “If you’re not listening intently, you may miss that nugget of information, and that might be the difference between winning and losing the sale,” he said.
For that couple looking to reconnect, those follow-up questions could be things like: “How do you see the two of you reconnecting on this vacation? Is there something you’ve done before that we can recreate on this vacation?”